Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Forgotten Media

Network TV --and that's all there was--in 1971 did not offer viewers many choices. It was slowly improving in quality, but there was not much to excite us--and certainly almost no presentation of classic literature.

But that year a new kid moved onto the block and for years dominated my Sunday nights. Sunday nights in 1971 were not the food fight they are now. There was a Sunday night movie, Bonanza, some musical shows, but nothing to get you excited.

Until Masterpiece Theater came on the scene. This was the first season. It was our first year in Detroit--we didn't know people here yet and this was one of the biggest topics of conversation with people we met. Believe it or not, MT was the water-cooler conversation then.

PBS was a relatively new entity, coming off of NET, which had broadcast the very successful THE FORSYTE SAGA in 1967, giving folks the idea America might be ready for classics. Masterpiece Theater was hosted by Alastair Cooke for many years and imported its programs from British TV. It really took off the third season with the introduction of Upstairs, Downstairs, which seemed livelier than much of their fare.

Season 1: 1971-1972
The First Churchills
The Spoils of Poynton
The Possessed
Pere Goriot
Jude the Obscure
The Gambler
Cold Comfort Farm
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Elizabeth R
The Last of the Mohicans

For years, we watched it every Sunday night. But commercial TV caught up with the quality over time and MT began to seem stodgy. Every series, no matter who the writer of the original material, seemed to be written by the same writer. The introduction of Masterpiece Mystery, at first seeming innovative, eventually seemed equally generic.

However, recently with series like Downton Abbey, the new Sherlock series and several other more dynamic productions, things may be headed in the right direction again.

For more forgotten movies, see Todd Mason.


Anonymous said...

Ah, a walk down memory lane. Like you we watched every episode of every series they ran for years. Now, it's very hit and miss. Some have remained in the memory ever since. We visited Blenheim on one of our first trips to England.

Jeff M.

Todd Mason said...

The damnedest thing about PBS drama was that the original US productions didn't have even the small budgets of the BBC offerings, but in those early years HOLLYWOOD TELEVISION THEATER and a few other series were certainly uneven but had an energy and sense of excitement about them that MYSTERY! (before it was colonized, for its first twenty years or so, after its latter '70s startup) and MASTERPIECE THEATRE usually lacked, indeed.

But there were always a few specials or such projects as the syndicated THE PLAY OF THE WEEK or the ABC monthly play showcase you highlighted some weeks back, along with such wonders as the original FORSYTE SAGA (loved that in repeats as a kid circa 1977).

Anonymous said...

FORSYTE SAGA was in black & white, as I recall.

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't know because we didn't have a color TV until the late seventies.
Yes, there was other good stuff-but this was a staple.

George said...

Certainly the quality was there in that early line-up. I think over the years MASTERPIECE THEATRE went more commercial.

pattinase (abbott) said...

To me, there biggest problem was they began to see every book through the same eyes. None retained the individuality of the writer. They could have all been written by the same person.

Al Tucher said...

A bit of trivia. I was new to the librarian profession then, and I learned that the number one reference question in libraries across the country was, "What's the theme from Masterpiece Theatre?"

(The Rondeau in D major by Jean-Joseph Mouret).

Todd Mason said...

Yes, the '60s FORSYTE SAGA was in b&w. There's s still from that series on the links list at my blog.

Todd Mason said...

Read Stephen Gallagher's blog about the Fun of getting projects off the ground and what kind of cookie-cutting they go through in Britain, too often.

Ron Scheer said...

Alastair Cooke was half the reason for watching MT. What a gentleman. Miss him.

Todd Mason said...

And I'd like to apologize for lack of clarity bordering on rudeness...the blandness of MASTERPIECE I meant to refer to was my impression of it in the latter '70s, when MYSTERY! was starting up (and MYSTERY!, aside from RUMPOLE, was pretty bland as well till the likes of PRIME SUSPECT started appearing). There was a period in the '80s and '90s apparently when British commercial tv had little choice (due to governmental/regulatory fiat) but to plow their profits back into programming, which became a bit of a win/win for them and the viewers, but happily for Rupert typical profit-taking rules OK now, and the uptick from the likes of Granada is less in evidence now...leading to the kind of near-uniformity of recent years that you were describing, Patti, though the SHERLOCK series is certainly another ornament to the BBC (I'm less impressed with what I've seen of DOWNTON than many).

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, the second year was disappointing.